“I just want to get this over with,” Jess said with obvious frustration. Stroking his graying gotee and fidgeting in his chair, the 40-year old man looked down while his wife of twenty years, Cassandra stared at him angrily.
Cassandra looked tired and pale, streaks of tears running down her cheeks.
“You get caught looking at pornography again, and you want me to forgive you and get on with things,” she said. “I can’t believe you look at that smut!”
“I told you I’m sorry, doesn’t that mean anything?” Jess asked.
“No, it doesn’t,” she said, beginning to cry again. “I just don’t get it. You knew something like this would kill me.”
“But it’s not about you,” he said emphatically. “Don’t you think it hurts me to see you hurt? Don’t you think it’s hard for me to hear you yell at me? You don’t know what it’s like to be scolded again and again.”
Cassandra looked away, sighing deeply. I could sense her disgust.
“It’s all about you again,” she said. “It’s always about you. When do I get to just be mad and hurt about all this?”
Watching this painful dance between Cassandra and her husband reminded me of the many other times I’ve sat with a couple trying to recover from some immense betrayal of trust. I watched as Cassandra struggled to contain her rage, hurt, and profound discouragement, and Jess as he tried to hurry the process along. He struggled to sit in the heat of the moment. Their challenge reminded me of an email from a man facing similar feelings.
Dear Dr. David,
I need some help in getting over my feelings of distrust with my wife. She had an affair six months ago and I can’t seem to heal from it. Every time I want to talk about my feelings about it she becomes disgusted with me. She tells me it is in the past and that I need to get on with it. But how can I get on with it when she won’t let me talk about my feelings. She says I’m stuck in the past, which maybe I am. But don’t I have a right to feel hurt and angry about what she’s done? Why does she want to hurry up and get over it, when I’m the one that can’t get the images out of my mind? There’s something wrong with all this, and I don’t think it’s me. Help.
In both of these situations, there has been a profound violation of trust. In both situations, the mate can’t seem to stand in the heat of the moment, allowing their mate to move through the stages of grief. By not allowing their mate to move through their grief at their own pace, they add another layer of difficulty to an already challenging situation. Let’s consider how to most effectively accept the overwhelming feelings of a mate whose trust has been violated.
1. Everyone handles grief and disappointment in different ways.
If you have betrayed your mate—in any way—be aware that there is a prescription for exactly how to handle it. Depending on the perceived violation, your mate may take two weeks or two years to fully process their feelings.
2. Having violated their trust, you must be available for as long as it takes to help them heal.
You must be available to your mate, physically, emotionally, and spiritually, to help them heal. You must stand in the heat, listening to them process their grief. You must answer their questions again and again. You must make them feel safe in sharing all their feelings.
3. If needed, set limits on the length of time in any given setting when you can be fully present.
If you can only listen for thirty minutes at a time before feeling overwhelmed, let your mate know this. Perhaps you will do better having a set time each evening, for a season, when you will be fully available to them to share their feelings. Reassure your mate that you want to ‘sit with their feelings’, but can only do so for certain amounts of time.
4. Create a safe container for your mate’s feelings.
Practice sitting with your mate, allowing them to vent, asking questions, and sharing feelings. Learn to be available to your mate without necessarily taking on all of their feelings. They are likely to focus on the recent events, and their feelings about them, forgetting the positive aspects of your relationship. Allow them the freedom to be exactly where they are. Things will get better.
5. Share your remorse—again and again.
Let your mate know you are sorry for your behavior and agree to make definite changes that will create safety from this issue repeating. Agree on healthy boundaries where he/she will feel safe and protected from future harm. Standing in the heat shows them that you are truly sorry for what you have done. Side-stepping the heat sends a message of seeking a short-cut rather than fully dealing with the issues.
6. Get professional help.
Because their feelings are likely to be very intense at first, seek professional help to set boundaries on the best way to process feelings of betrayal. Ask your counselor to help you create times and places where his/her feelings can best be processed.
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Share your feedback or send a confidential note to me at firstname.lastname@example.org and read more about The Marriage Recovery Center on my Web site, www.marriagerecoverycenter.com and yourrelationshipdoctor.com. You’ll find videos and podcasts on saving a troubled marriage, codependency, rejection by your mate, and affair-proofing your marriage.